How to Destroy American Innovation: The FAA & Commercial Drones

by on October 6, 2014 · 0 comments

DroneIf you want a devastating portrait of how well-intentioned regulation sometimes has profoundly deleterious unintended consequences, look no further than the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current ban on commercial drones in domestic airspace. As Jack Nicas reports in a story in today’s Wall Street Journal (“Regulation Clips Wings of U.S. Drone Makers“), the FAA’s heavy-handed regulatory regime is stifling America’s ability to innovate in this space and remain competitive internationally. As Nicas notes:

as unmanned aircraft enter private industry—for purposes as varied as filming movies, inspecting wind farms and herding cattle—many U.S. drone entrepreneurs are finding it hard to get off the ground, even as rivals in Europe, Canada, Australia and China are taking off.

The reason, according to interviews with two-dozen drone makers, sellers and users across the world: regulation. The FAA has banned all but a handful of private-sector drones in the U.S. while it completes rules for them, expected in the next several years. That policy has stifled the U.S. drone market and driven operators underground, where it is difficult to find funding, insurance and customers.

Outside the U.S., relatively accommodating policies have fueled a commercial-drone boom. Foreign drone makers have fed those markets, while U.S. export rules have generally kept many American manufacturers from serving them.

Of course, the FAA simply responds that they are looking out for the safety of the skies and that we shouldn’t blame them. Again, there’s no doubt that the agency’s hyper-cautious approach to commercial drone integration is based on the best of intentions. But as we’ve noted here again and again, all the best of intentions don’t count for much–or at least shouldn’t count for much–when stacked against real-world evidence and results. And the results in this case are quite troubling.

An article last week from Alan McQuinn of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (“Commercial Drone Companies Fly Away from FAA Regulations, Go Abroad“) documented how problematic this situation has become:

With no certainty surrounding a timeline, limited access to exemptions, and a dithering pace for setting its rules, the FAA is slowing innovation. . . .  These overbearing rules have pushed U.S. companies to move their drone research and development projects to more permissive nations, such as Australia, where Google chose to test its drones. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority, the agency in charge of commercial drones, offers a great example of unrestrictive regulations. While it has not yet finalized its drone laws, it still allows companies and citizens to test and use these technologies under certain rules. Instead of forcing companies to reveal their technologies at government test sites, it allows them to test outdoors if they receive an operator’s certificate and submit their test area for approval. Australia’s more permissive nature shows how a country can allow innovation to thrive while simultaneously examining it for potential safety concerns.

The Wall Street Journal’s Nicas similarly observes that foreign innovators are already taking advantage of America’s regulatory mistakes to leapfrog us in drone innovation. He reports that Germany, Canada, Australia and China are starting to move ahead of us. Nicas quotes Steve Klindworth, head of a DJI drone retailer in Liberty Hill, Texas, who says that if the United States doesn’t move soon to adopt a more sensible policy position for drones that, “It’ll reach a point of no return where American companies won’t ever be able to catch up.”

In essence, the United States is adopting the exact opposite approach we did a generation ago for the Internet and digital technology.  I’ve written recently about how “permissionless innovation” powered the Information Revolution and helped American companies become the envy of the globe. (See my essay, “Why Permissionless Innovation Matters,” for more details and data.) That happened because America got policy right, whereas other countries either tried to micromanage the Information Revolution into existence or they adopted policies that instead actively stifled it. (See my recent book on this subject for more discussion.)

In essence, we see this story playing out in reverse with commercial drones. The FAA is adopting a hyper-precautionary principle position that is holding back innovation based on worse-case scenarios. Certainly the safety of the national airspace is a vital matter. But to shut down all other aerial innovation in the meantime is completely unreasonable. As I wrote in a filing to the FAA with my Mercatus Center colleagues Eli Dourado and Jerry Brito last year:

Like the Internet, airspace is a platform for commercial and social innovation. We cannot accurately predict to what uses it will be put when restrictions on commercial use of UASs are lifted. Nevertheless, experience shows that it is vital that innovation and entrepreneurship be allowed to proceed without ex ante barriers imposed by regulators. We therefore urge the FAA not to impose any prospective restrictions on the use of commercial UASs without clear evidence of actual, not merely hypothesized, harm.

Countless life-enriching innovations are being sacrificed because of the FAA’s draconian policy. (Below I have embedded a video of me discussing those innovations with John Stossel, which was taped earlier this year.) New industry sectors and many jobs are also being forgone. It’s time for the FAA to get moving to open up the skies to drone innovation. Congress should be pushing the agency harder on this front since the agency seems determined to ignore the law, which requires the agency to integrate commercial drones into the nation’s airspace.

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